Mercedes designer a user experience leader

Vera Schmidt envisions a future in which a vehicle drives itself through modern-day San Francisco with a passenger shut tightly inside. A digital membrane surrounds the passenger, and images of San Francisco’s environment before the city was built up flash by, changing perspective as the vehicle moves up hills and around corners.

It sounds wildly futuristic. But Schmidt, senior manager of advanced digital design for Daimler AG, says such a user experience could be possible by 2030 or earlier. Technologies such as LED-based communications and gesture commands will appear sooner.

Schmidt, 37, helps guide the future of the user experience for Mercedes-Benz customers. She is one of the 28 Automotive News’ Rising Stars, new stars helping lead the industry into an era of enormous technological change. 

Schmidt says she keeps one tenet top of mind.

“The car really is an extension of your senses,” she said. “It can show me things I can’t see. It can make me feel things I can’t feel normally.”

Schmidt, a native of Germany and former freelance designer, has spent most of her Daimler career working in Silicon Valley. She oversees designers at the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio near Daimler’s Stuttgart headquarters and its Sunnyvale, Calif., research center in the heart of Silicon Valley. She splits her time about equally between the two locations.

Her vision of the car as enhancing the occupants’ senses, combined with the advance of autonomous driving, will move automotive design away from a focus on the vehicle’s exterior look, Schmidt said. Her work on Mercedes-Benz concept cars illustrates this shift.

“We start designing the car more and more from the inside out, around the user experience actually,” Schmidt said. “And that’s new. What does the user want in the car?”

F 015 Luxury in Motion used technology to communicate with pedestrians.

Luxury in Motion

2012’s DICE, or Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience, interior concept showed gesture control and augmented reality technology integrated into the driving experience.

The F 015 Luxury in Motion from 2015 took the vision further. Schmidt’s team explored how vehicle users could gain back time if their cars operated autonomously. “What would you do if you don’t have to concentrate on driving anymore?” Schmidt asked.

Screens on the interior walls surrounded the F 015’s loungelike seating to offer a continuous exchange of information among the vehicle, passengers and outside world. Because a self-driving car may have no person sitting inside, it was important to include interfaces on the exterior, too.

The car used LED lighting, animation, acoustic signals and laser projections to communicate with pedestrians. For example, it could let pedestrians know whether the car was driving autonomously or manually, or whether it would stop to allow someone to cross safely in front of it.

Schmidt is working on a production concept that will use light and movement features to communicate with humans. It will come out this year, she said.

Wagener: Design leads to change.

Daimler’s design chief lauded Schmidt and her team. 

Schmidt has helped vault the company into a leading position in user experience design, said Gorden Wagener, chief design officer for Daimler AG. He called the F 015 a “revolutionary concept” showing how connectivity, digital design and autonomous technology will eventually transform that experience. 

“Digitalization will change the car more than we think,” Wagener said. 

Daimler’s ambition is to balance form and function as that transformation happens. 

“We not only do beautiful things,” Wagener said. “I truly believe that designers are the ones who can really deal with the interaction between man and machine. This is a great chance that will change our entire industry.” 

Self-driving technology is a big enabler, Wagener said. Designers’ solutions must be intuitive and user-friendly. Touch, speech and gesture controls will all advance. But the technology must be used the right way, he said. 

“There’s no point in using gesture in front of a screen. Why would you do that? You can directly tap on the screen and operate it,” Wagener said. “But if you sit in the rear of the car, and you make a gesture and the light goes on or the TV goes on, then it makes sense.” 

The most important technology poised to enhance the user experience is artificial intelligence, Wagener said. Daimler’s designers are working with the company’s programmers and engineers to explore how the car’s computers can learn more about the user and put that learning into action to elevate the user’s time with the vehicle. 

Making the user’s time in the vehicle more intuitive and more valuable is guiding Schmidt. 

She joined Daimler in 2008 after doing freelance design for customers in Germany and New York City. Schmidt earned a design degree from a German university and then came to the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar to get a master’s degree in art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga. Schmidt worked full time in Silicon Valley from 2011 to 2015 when she was tapped to develop the advanced digital design department in Germany.

Daimler’s Vera Schmidt with colleagues Konstantin Fick, left, and Alexander Hilliger von Thile with the Mercedes F 015 Luxury in Motion, which featured loungelike seating and emphasized a continuous exchange of information among the vehicle, passengers and the outside world.

Fitting the user’s needs

Bringing more of the outside in — as in the example of that futuristic car traveling through San Francisco — is one of her missions. A digital membrane inside a vehicle could also show events happening in the city or historical facts about the area.

But Schmidt also wants to reduce the stress on the user’s visual sense already heavily in demand inside a vehicle. While it’s possible to display more content inside the car, designers also must make sure it is in context and fits the user’s needs.

“When would I need it, what kind of information, and how do I deal with it?” Schmidt said. “So that’s the challenge. But it’s also a big chance for the industry.”

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